The coverage of the Marikana massacre seems to start with the mass killings of 16 August. But that’s not where, or how, the violence started, and it wasn’t rivalry between unions, either. Rewind a few days and prepare for goosebumps: you’ll find a web of conspiracy around two murders which were not reported in the media and ended in no arrests, but scared the living daylights out of the workers before the weeks of horror started.
Because the Marikana Massacre marked a turning point in the history of our country, I went to the small mining town in the North West. I wanted to know what truly happened and what it meant for the future of our so-called democracy. I hoped my trip would enable me to answer some of the burning questions left obfuscated by media, government and civil society campaigns alike.
It seemed it would be difficult, if not impossible, to uncover the cause of the violence at a distance from Marikana because of the complete failure of most media outlets to ask the right questions of the right people. Professor Jane Duncan of Rhodes University has found that journalists rarely interviewed independent mine workers or residents of Marikana, preferring to quote “official sources” such as unions, Lonmin or the police. Moreover, my experience of previous incidents of repression in South Africa had taught me that such sources are often unreliable, as they have a lot to lose by telling the truth.
Through my investigations I found that, contrary to many media reports, inter-union rivalry was not the immediate cause of the violence. In fact, a significant cause of the violence can be laid squarely on the National Union of Mineworkers and their murder of two of their own NUM members – which, until 2 October, remained unreported.
Meeting the community
After meeting a community member (whose family did not consist of direct employees of Lonmin) in Johannesburg, I spent a week at the end of September living in the massive Nkaneng shack settlement in the township of Wonderkop. Together, Nkaneng and Wonderkop dwarf Marikana itself, housing the vast majority of the area’s mine workers. Yet almost all the roads there remain unpaved, and residents are forced to go all the way to the “city centre” for most of their needs. Geographically and socio-economically, Wonderkop is the bastard stepchild of the Marikana municipality, further marginalised by Lonmin, whose corporate social responsibility initiatives remain unnoticeable.
During my visit, I spoke to Lonmin workers who had participated in the strike and others who were not active strikers. I interviewed the wives and children of the miners and I also sat down with unemployed and self-employed residents who did not have family members working at Lonmin.
I began to piece together a more detailed and shocking timeline of the strike and how it eventually degenerated into the horrifying footage played out for the whole world to see.
Perhaps the most striking thing I heard repeatedly in Wonderkop was the near-complete hatred that all residents, regardless of their connection to the strike, had towards the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
I had assumed that within Wonderkop there would be a divide between supporters of NUM and those that had jumped ship to their smaller non-Cosatu affiliated rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). I assumed there would at least be a significant minority of residents who blamed the strikers for instigating the killings and felt that NUM still remained a relevant and credible force among Lonmin workers.
And yet every single person that I spoke to, without fail, blamed NUM for starting the violence and reneging on its responsibility to represent the workers. This was the case even when people I interviewed expressed dislike for the strikers and their own subsequent acts of brutality. Almost everyone felt more hatred towards NUM than they did towards Lonmin, the police or even the Zuma administration.
Alternative timeline: how the strike began
On Wednesday 8 August, some rock drill operators (RDOs) from various Lonmin mines had a mass meeting demanding a significant salary increase. The NUM leaders present categorically refused to support the strike, despite the union’s stated mission to promote and represent the interests of its members. On the following day (Women’s Day – a holiday for the workers), thousands of RDOs from all Lonmin mines met at the Lonmin-owned football stadium, adjacent to the settlement, where they agreed to approach Lonmin management directly, as NUM was refusing to represent them.
According to Xolani*, an active striker from Lonmin’s Karee mine, RDOs “came together as workers, not as a union.” As the large majority of the workers at the assembly were NUM members, the AMCU was unrepresented at this meeting.
On the morning of Friday the 10th, workers assembled and marched to the offices of Lonmin management. David, a Lonmin mine geologist I interviewed (who was returning from work and was not then part of the strike), decided to join the striking RDOs to see what was going on. David told me that management refused to speak to the workers, who were assembled peacefully, and told them to go back to the NUM leadership.
Xolani and a few other participants in the march corroborated this. He explained that security had tried to stop the march and that after a long wait, the general manager of the mine came out and then went back in to fetch a NUM leader. After waiting for almost an hour, the NUM leader came out and reprimanded the workers, saying they would not get anything without going through the union.
As a result of Lonmin and NUM’s refusal to meet with the workers, more than 3,000 RDOs and other miners decided to go on strike and refused to clock in that evening. This was a wildcat strike organised directly by workers, without any union representation.
11 August: March on NUM
At approximately 07:00 on Saturday, workers, still primarily RDOs, decided to go to the main offices of NUM in Wonderkop and present union leadership with a memorandum. It is important to note that the NUM offices are also the offices of the ANC and SACP in Wonderkop. They are manned by the top five NUM branch leaders from all the Lonmin mines in Marikana. These leaders are senior to shop-stewards and are elected to their position by workers for a period of three years. Interestingly, David explained to me that they get their normal worker’s salary plus a huge bonus of R14,000 per month from Lonmin. They are therefore accountable to management. Both the NUM leaders and Lonmin are “happy with this arrangement”.
As strikers were by and large NUM members, they were naturally angry that their own union refused to listen to them. The memorandum demanded that NUM represent them in their call for a R12,500 minimum wage for all miners. NUM’s stated raison d’être is, after all, to be a democratic organisation that represents its members.
Julius, an RDO from Lesotho employed at Lonmin since 2008, explained that, as a NUM member, he was hoping the memorandum would convince union leaders of the significance of their wage demands.
Only a handful of AMCU members were present during that march, as many workers from the Karee mine, where AMCU already had a membership presence, was far away and not yet participating in significant numbers in the strike. Xolani, one of the few AMCU members present that day, said this protest was really a case of NUM members rebelling against their own leadership, not a case of inter-union rivalry.
The first murders, ‘a different account’
Once striking RDOs were about 100-150 metres away from the NUM office, eyewitnesses, both participants in the march and informal traders in and around a nearby taxi rank, reported without exception that “top five” NUM leaders and other shop stewards, between 15 and 20 in all, came out of the office and began shooting at the protesting strikers somewhere in the vicinity of the Wonderkop taxi rank.
Some strikers I interviewed claimed the NUM leaders first threw rocks at them before the shooting started. Others said they were attacked from two different angles of the taxi rank. There is also a discrepancy as to just how many guns were in the possession of the leadership that came out of the NUM office (reports range from between five and 15 firearms).
Despite those discrepancies, the strikers and other witnesses – without exception – claim NUM personnel shot at the protesters without warning or provocation. The miners were clearly ambushed by their union representatives. From that point on, the miners marching towards the NUM office, primarily NUM members, ran in many directions: back along the road in which they had come, through the nearby bond houses and through Lonmin-owned hostel properties. They later re-assembled at Lonmin’s football stadium, deciding there for the sake of safety to move to the nearby koppie, a small hilltop uniquely placed on public land between Wonderkop, Marikana and the various Lonmin mines. Protesters seem to have made no attempt to defend themselves, and there seem to have been no further clashes for the rest of the day.
John, a non-striking Lonmin worker, saw two bodies of strikers not far from the NUM office as he returned home from work. One was lying dead by the bus stop in the taxi rank, the other was just outside the workers’ hostel. The range of people I interviewed corroborated the location of the two dead bodies, but it was extremely difficult to confirm the names of the dead strikers as neither Lonmin nor the police have confirmed that any deaths occurred on the 11th. Neither have they released any substantive information about what happened on that day.
However, one person I interviewed provided me with the following new names not released by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate: S. Gwadidi from the Roeland Shaft and Tobias Tshivilika from New Mine Shaft. Both were reportedly RDOs and also NUM members.
I was not able to assess if these names were correct or if any other people were injured during this shooting on the 11 August.
Everyone I interviewed agreed on this general timeline of the murders: two deaths at the very beginning of the violence, followed by a subsequent eight deaths and a number of injuries during the following three days, from Sunday, 12 August until Tuesday, 14 August.
It started out as a peaceful strike
I wanted to find out when and why the workers began to arm themselves, and so asked a wide range of residents in Wonderkop why and when striking workers began carrying traditional items such as sticks, knobkerries and pangas.
The consensus, with one exception, was that the strikers went to their homes to fetch their traditional weapons on Saturday, 11 August, after the murder of two strikers. In the words of David, who was present at the march (but still not yet on strike himself), “people decided to arm themselves (after the first two murders) in self-defence”. Xolani and Julius support this assertion: they had nothing in their hands during the march.
Some women leaders from the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco), a body aligned to the ANC, SACP and Cosatu, agreed that the miners only took up arms in self-defence after their members were murdered by NUM officials. Many of the informal traders and bystanders at the scene of the NUM shooting were hesitant to speak to me. Yet, after I assured them that they would remain anonymous, all, without exception, said the violence on that day came from the people working in the NUM office. When I asked some young men playing draughts who killed whom, they merely pointed in the direction of the NUM office, saying it was “them”. By all accounts the strikers were unarmed that morning when they marched to their own union office.
When I returned from my visit to Marikana, I began searching through all the mainstream and alternative media reports I could find. After reading hundreds of articles, I found none that mentioned the incident on the 11th. Until the Farlam Commission recently interviewed a worker about the events on that day, not a single media report had acknowledged that the first deaths occurred on the 11 August rather than on the 12th.
A single early South African Press Association story placed the first two shootings on the evening of 10 August. But that was all. That story contradicts other mainstream media reports and does not corroborate what people say on the ground. It seems most likely that the reporting is mistaken and those four people mentioned in the article were actually shot on the morning of the 11th during the march on NUM offices, and that two of them later died.
The only other possible explanations for the lack of reporting on the incident would be either (a) that the murders on the 11th did not take place at all, and that everyone I have interviewed were somehow lying or (b) there is some kind of cover-up of the murders of Mr. Gwadidi and Mr. Tshivilika – both unlikely conclusions.
All the other articles I’ve read have told a completely different story: that the first deaths occurred on Sunday, 12 August. These include two of the security guards in the daytime and two other miners in the evening (see for instance, articles: here, here, here, here, here and here.
It is as if no one outside Marikana knows that two people were murdered in broad daylight at the busy Wonderkop taxi rank. This is strange, except when one considers that no one in Wonderkop/Marikana has access to the media except for NUM, Lonmin and the South African Police Service (SAPS). The media, not present in Marikana until later in the week, were relying on these three official bodies for their entire investigation. Not a single community member or worker was actually interviewed during the first few days of the strike.
As Professor Jane Duncan’s analysis of the media coverage of the Marikana Massacre from 13 to 22 August has shown, only 3% of articles about the events included interviews with workers themselves rather than “official” institutions such as government, SAPS, Lonmin, NUM and AMCU. With one exception, journalists that did actually speak to workers were only interested in asking questions about muthi.
What this means is that no eyewitnesses were contacted by journalists and, when a few were eventually contacted (mostly after the 16 August) they focused primarily on the more recent massacre and overlooked the original cause of the violence.
Causes and responsibilities
Many analysts and academics with easy access to the elite public sphere place the root cause for the Lonmin strike and the subsequent violence on the deprivation and exploitation meted out each and every day on RDOs and other miners all over South Africa. Greg Marinovich’s recent interviews with Lonmin RDOs have done a lot to illuminate the lives and working conditions in the mines.
I found, however, that NUM’s actions, undemocratically refusing to represent its own workers and siding instead with Lonmin management in the wage dispute, were a significant contributor to the violence. Even more disturbing, NUM saw its own workers as enemies from within – an uneducated and unthinking mass to be controlled and managed rather than served.
This is why NUM leaders such as Frans Baleni think it is impossible for workers to organise themselves without a “third force” acting from behind the scenes. My interviews have shown quite clearly that workers were acting by and for themselves, regardless of union affiliation, in rebellion against their own union leadership. They were their own leaders.
The paranoid and delusional fear that NUM members were being “remote controlled” by outsiders set on “destroying the union” may have been what led its leadership at Lonmin to respond irrationally and violently to the striker’s peaceful march on the NUM office.
The police did nothing in response to the two deaths on 11 August. No one was arrested that day, nor was anyone interrogated. This was despite the fact that many strikers present during the murders assert they can identify at least some of their assailants. Xolani, for instance, named two of the shop stewards, one from the Training Centre and one from the fourth shaft in Wonderkop. Others pointed out the Lonmin “Top Five”, one of whom seems to have now been assassinated.
I asked David if he thought there might have been an alternative to the violence if the police had arrested the murderers on that fateful day. He replied, “I think it would be different if police had arrested NUM… if you don’t arrest anybody, then it seems like you are protecting them.”
Whether or not police could have uncovered the full story on that day, the act of doing nothing left workers with the perception that they were isolated. “Worker, you are on your own” could be their rephrasing of Bantu Steve Biko’s famous words. If one is standing unarmed and vulnerable against armoured vehicles, guns and the full might of the South African state, then, as workers may have put it when meeting on top of the now infamous koppie on the afternoon of 11 August: It’s time to get ready for war.
* Not his real name. Because of the recent spate of murders targeting NUM leaders in Marikana, the names of everyone interviewed for this article have been changed, though their real names are known to the author.